Bristol Bot Builders and the art of combat robotics

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By Flossie Palmer, Features Editor

Combat robotics may be a niche and perhaps unheard of hobby, but Bristol Bot Builders (BBB) are here to help spread the word and get more people involved in the art of robot building, including students. Formed as part of the Bristol Electrical and Electronic Engineering Society (BEEES) at the University of Bristol, Joe Brown, alongside the BEEES committee, encouraged students from different subjects – whether that be a STEM degree or students from the Arts Department – to try their hand at building a robot from scratch and fighting it for fun, all over a pint of beer.

Since graduating in 2015, Joe Brown teamed up with friends Gareth Barnaby and Craig Croucher to continue Bristol Bot Builders as an entity separate from the University of Bristol, all while maintaining the fun atmosphere of a university society. This has been achieved through Bristol Bot Builders’ events, such as robot combat competitions and ‘clinics’ held in The Hackspace, located in St Phillip’s, in which attendees are provided with robot building starter kits and the opportunity to build their own.

'A Bristol Bot Builders antweight competition, located at The Lanes, Bristol City Centre' | Facebook / Bristol Bot Builders

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, Bristol Bot Builders have nonetheless maintained a strong connection with the combat robotics community they have built. In August 2020, Bristol Bot Builders hosted a 24 hour livestream with a packed schedule of events, including online competitions and panels with esteemed robot builders - as seen on the UK TV programme, Robot Wars – as well as the commentator of Battle Bots, the USA equivalent.

However, when in-person events were finally able to return, such as the Bristol Bot Builders Great British Bodge Off – a Great British Bake-Off Themed competition in which beetleweight robots weighing 1.5kg fought each other in an arena of deathly spoons and spatulas - Joe Brown noted that ‘It felt like a school reunion – it was so special!’.

By competing in events for fun, Joe Brown highlighted the potential to meet lifelong friends beyond the shared similarity of building and fighting robots. ‘It’s interesting how likeminded people are!’ he exclaimed, explaining how he has met friends across the UK and from other countries too, who he attends gigs and plays video games with. As Craig Croucher pointed out, ‘The community is a huge part of our mission. This what we made BBB for – to create a community of people who share an interest and want to have fun!’

The team welcome newcomers to the hobby with open arms, providing a fun and lively community on their Facebook Group – which currently has 695 members – in which anyone can share their robot building progress or ask for advice. Robot building guides can also be found on the Bristol Bot Builders website to help you find your starting point, as well as videos on their YouTube channel to prepare you for what to expect at your first fight.

However, even this is subject to unpredictability due to the unique and downright whacky designs of competitors, and the outcomes of the fights themselves; ‘You might assume that the most expensive, fancily engineered robot is going to win but often it’s the underdog that was built for a tenner out of junk!’, Craig laughed.

Over the years, the Bristol Bot Builders team have encouraged participants to lean into their creative sides by meeting both artistic and humorous challenges with their robot designs. Some rather unique inventions to note have included a robot made from Weetabix and referred to lovingly by Joe Brown as ‘Weetabix on Wheels’, as well as a weaponized Battenburg robot at Bristol Bot Builders’ most recent event in June - the Great British Bodge Off.

‘People don’t realize how artsy and creative engineering actually is!’, Joe stated, explaining why Bristol Bot Builders encourage those with different interests and talents to give participating in their events a go, even if that means just spectating. The team also elaborated that the STEM acronym has evolved into STEAM to incorporate the ‘Arts’, destigmatising the perceived lack of creativity in science and maths-based subjects.

While the creativity of BBB engages a wider audience, they are simultaneously tearing down traditional STEM stereotypes of engineering being a masculine biased industry. This is even incorporated into Joe Brown and Craig Croucher’s most famous robot, the Two-Headed Death Flamingo; a bright ‘aggressively pink’, 110kg heavyweight robot equipped with metal wings and a pair of hammerhead beaks. The team are dressed for the part too; ‘We’re the least manly men and we’re all wearing pink jackets – it doesn’t have to be all macho and hyper-masculine!’ Joe exclaimed.

On top of welcoming newcomers from all different backgrounds, Bristol Bot Builders has also encouraged others to try out engineering with their educational outreach programmes. As an Assistant Teacher at the University of Bristol, Joe Brown has helped secondary school students engage with engineering work experience at the University in which students tried their hand at building air quality sensors to measure Bristol’s pollution.

Bristol Bot Builders has also attended Digimakers, a science fair usually hosted at We the Curious in Millennium Square, in which over 200 school children attend and can access robot building workshops. Both Joe and Craig come from teaching career backgrounds and are quick to recognise the flaws in the education system; children can explore subjects such as maths and physics, but not how to apply these skills to ‘real world problem solving’ through engineering.

Students beyond primary and secondary school are also encouraged to try out engineering by BBB, especially university students no matter what course you’re studying. ‘It’s never too late to pivot!’ Joe commented, when discussing changing career path post-graduation, ‘People always think that you’re stuck in one industry, particularly in the more traditional career paths. But I think people change, and jobs are changing just as fast too.’

The most accessible ways to break into the engineering industry no matter your educational background, as recommended by Joe, are by studying a one year Masters (MA) course in a STEM subject such as Computer Science or Electronic Engineering, or undertake an intensive summer course available across the UK in similar subjects which qualify you as an employable, electronic engineer after completion.

However, for students already involved in engineering-based hobbies, Joe recommends The Hackspace as the perfect workshop space to dabble in. With its £10 per month membership, students can access larger and more expensive machinery, enabling you to dive into robot building without the complications of student life. The Bristol Bot Builders online shop is also an affordable and efficient source of parts for Bristol students, providing everything from motors to electrical controllers, wheels and starter kits.

On Sunday August 8th, Bristol Bot Builders are hosting their next in-person event, the ‘Summer Showdown Beetle Competition’, at Almondsbury Creative on Gloucester Road. Although there are no more free spaces for competing, the event is open and free to attend for spectators.

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If trying your hand at combat robotics piques your interest, whether as a new hobby or an insight into a potential career, take the advice of Joe Brown and ‘chase whatever interests you, because then you’ll enjoy it even more! Even if it is a hobby, enjoy it, make the most out of it, and maybe you’ll be able to eventually turn that into your career.’

Featured Image: Epigram / Bristol Bot Builders


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